Henley settles in for Masters debut

dshirley@macon.comApril 10, 2013 

AUGUSTA -- When I started working at The Telegraph back in 2006, Jonathan Heeter told me about a Stratford golfer who was going to be special, someone we should keep our eyes on.

He spoke about him in glowing terms, and through the years we have seen those descriptions be right on the mark. As we moved forward, he more than once said, “He’s going to be playing in the Masters one day.”

That day is Thursday.

Macon native Russell Henley will make his Masters debut and will be one of the first players on the course in the first round at Augusta National Golf Club when he tees off in the second group of the day with Larry Mize and Brian Gay. It’s only fitting that Henley is playing with Mize, who is one of three Georgia natives to win this tournament.

It’s probably too much to think Henley will join Mize in that elite group this week. After all, Masters rookies just don’t win the tournament, right? The last time it happened was in 1979 when Fuzzy Zoeller claimed his only Masters title, and that was 10 years before Henley was even born.

But would any of us really be surprised to see Henley in contention Sunday? Or would any of us really be shocked to see him slip into a green jacket some time in his career?

Yes, we’re biased after seeing his early career -- all the amateur wins, the career at Georgia, the three wins on the Web.com Tour and the victory at the Sony Open earlier this year in his first official event as a PGA Tour member -- and we have seen what a classy young man he is while having all that success.

But none of that clouds the fact that he is a really good player; Nike doesn’t sign just anyone up after college, after all. And he has shown that in his first season on the tour, especially at the Sony Open, a victory that earned him a spot in Augusta this week.

And what a week it has been so far. Henley played his practice round Monday with Tom Watson -- yes, that Tom Watson -- along with amateur Nathan Smith, who is a friend of Henley’s. Henley and Smith played another practice round together Tuesday and were rejoined by Watson for the Par-3 Contest on Wednesday afternoon … at Watson’s request.

All along, Henley has been followed through the week by family and friends, shaking hands with people outside the ropes, signing autographs and posing for pictures. He soaked in every moment he could and enjoyed the preparation for his first appearance in his home state’s major tournament.

Once the tournament gets going Thursday, however, the tone will change, and things will be different. But Henley likely won’t be overwhelmed by the moment. He has been preparing for this his entire young career and even before that.

He enjoys the big stage, and he showed that with all his victories and his strong performances in his two U.S. Open appearances. The environment won’t be too big for him, and he will get a chance to show that once again this week.

It certainly will be something to see, something Middle Georgia will keep its eyes focused on all week.

Contact Daniel Shirley at 744-4227 or dshirley@macon.com

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